On the outskirts of Moscow, Masha Gessen is preparing dinner for her friends and family. She is an openly gay Russian-American journalist, who has three children with her girlfriend. But last June, President Putin and the Russian parliament unanimously passed a federal law which she says specifically targets her family.
Having won landslide support in the Duma, the bill bans the spreading of so-called “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors.
While Putin claims this action helps safeguard and enshrine traditional Russian values, Gessen is adamant there is another reason behind the law: “Twenty months ago he looked out his window and saw the first set of huge protests. What he saw were enemies protesting not his regime, but Russia itself. That meant they were foreigners. The ‘others’. And LGBT people are the quintessential foreign agents. The quintessential ‘other’. It has nothing to do with homophobia, per say. It’s xenophobia in general. But who better personifies foreign or western influence than LGBTs. So we’re the first target but we’re not going to be the only target. It’s going to broaden out.”
Since the laws were passed targeting the LGBT community – which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender – there has been confrontation, first on a regional and then on a national level. Subsequent decrees have followed, including one banning adoption by gay couples and another allowing jail sentences of up to three years for blasphemy and “offending religious feelings”.
Gay rights activists’ worst fears of an increase in hate crimes have been realised with an upsurge in homophobic vigilantism since the introduction of the legislation, and even killings in some parts of Russia.
Elena Kostyuchenko works for Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s only independent newspapers to have come out as critical of the Kremlin. She is also a gay rights activist and the creator of the first ‘kiss-in protests’ in Moscow, which sparked other same-sex smooching rallies in front of Russian consulates across the world.
Kostyuchenko says the legislation has emboldened right-wing groups and LGBT protests in Russia now tend to follow a predictable routine: “They come to beat us up. How does this happen? We go in front of the Duma and kiss. They try to hit us and sometimes they succeed. They throw rotten eggs at us, ketchup, urine. The last time they put human faeces in condoms and threw them at us. Normally the police just stand there on the side and once we’ve been beaten up a bit, they take us away. That’s more or less how it happens.”
While Putin has come under heavy criticism from the United States and the EU for these laws, he has found a staunch ally in the Russian Orthodox Church. Forced underground during the Soviet era, today this religious body professes total allegiance to the state and warns that same sex marriage will lead to the Apocalypse.
As their spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, explained, the Russian Orthodox Church also believes homosexuals are trying to indoctrinate children with their values: “People are free to choose but now we’re seeing this lack of freedom when homosexuality is imposed on children and on adolescents. This is done through the internet, through (western) political propaganda, by political actions, by the gay lobby. And we don’t want this phenomenon being imposed on our children or adults by political pressure.”
Critics claim this type of argument gives extreme religious groups the green light for the harassment of homosexuals. Leonid Aprelsky is a member of the religious group ‘God’s Will’ and while he admits that sometimes there is confrontation, he says that today the law, and the police, are on their side: “Thanks to the new laws that have been adopted, now, for example, if we see sodomites openly walking in the streets handing out flyers with their ideas to children, all we have to do is call the police.”
His priest, Dmitry Smirnov, trusts in the common sense of those in the Duma: “It’s difficult to imagine that the entire parliament is made up of crazy people. So if the parliament is busy drafting such laws and voting for them at almost 100 percent, this means that they consider them relevant.”
Last June, not one member of parliament stood against the ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’ – it passed 436-0, with just one deputy abstaining from the vote – and it is a law which polls suggest has proved popular amongst a large majority of Russians.
But these same polls reveal that also some 80 percent of Russians don’t know any homosexuals. This is due in large part to a LGBT community which, even prior to this law, has largely kept silent about its sexuality.
It was a silence Anton Krasovsky could no longer keep. Last January, the popular Russian TV presenter came out as gay during one of his shows.
He was fired by a text message the next day.
Reflecting on this abrupt end to his media career, Krasovsky remains defiant: “A great writer, Leonid Tolstoy, once wrote this text called ‘I can’t stay quiet anymore’, and I just simply could not remain quiet. I thought that Vladimir Putin’s fourth mandate would bring in great changes, strategic and serious ones which would improve the country. All the changes that were made were great, serious and strategic, but they have all worsened the country. Within a year, Putin, in my opinion, a person whom I supported, has become a person I could no longer support and I can’t support him.”
In just a few months, Russia will be hosting the Winter Olympics – a matter of personal pride for Putin. Calls to boycott them by gay rights activists have been met with fierce resentment by most Russians.
For Robert Schlegel, a United Russia Party member of the Duma, the international reaction to the laws feel more about antagonism toward Russia than anything else: “You know the Olympic Games are a very important event for us. Naturally, in Europe and in the United States, there are politicians we can call ‘Russophobes’, people for whom a victory for Russia, a great event which is taking place here, is like a thorn in their side. And of course they’ll use whatever pretext to hurt Russia.”
Supporters of Russia’s legislation argue that their country has already undergone huge changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union – a time during which homosexuality was outlawed as a crime.
For Maria Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, this is all part of Putin’s bid to forge a new Russian identity which is conservative but also strong: “It is absolutely inconceivable that the legislation will be changed, amended, or softened. President Putin is not the kind of person who concedes under pressure. Just the opposite. As long as there is pressure there is an urge to come to the fore and say, ‘Nobody has the right to teach us or preach to us and this is one of the reasons, one out of many, that makes Putin popular; that he can stand up to the pressure from the West.”
While Putin is standing up to Western pressure, the Duma is on a roll, set to introduce even more laws safeguarding traditional values. One such bill calls for denying gay parents custody over their children in light of their non-traditional sexual orientation.The draft law would add homosexuality to a list of conditions including drug and child abuse that can lead to parents being stripped of their children.
Masha Gessen is not taking any chances. She is taking her children to the United States, having already left Russia once before due to anti-Semitism. It is a return she is loathed to make: “It sucks. You know it feels absurd because I was fourteen when I left my country because they had no place for us. I felt like I was reclaiming it when I came back here (to Russia) in my twenties. It was a very important statement to make to myself and to people around me. That this is my home and they don’t get to take it away from me just because of their anti-Semitic policies. Well, they get to take it away again.”
An estimated five percent of Russia’s 140 million population is gay and whilst there are some who say they are determined to stay and fight for equal rights, others worry that the only solution is at the airport, in the form of a one-way ticket.